Students and Administrators Discuss ‘Restorative Justice’


In the wake of the disciplinary proceedings relating to student protests of Charles Murray, administrators and students have renewed past discussions about implementing restorative justice and restorative practices at the College.

These two terms are often used interchangeably, and their difference can sometimes be ambiguous. However, restorative justice is often defined as consisting of community-building alternatives to punitive action after an incident, while restorative practices refer to broader efforts to cultivate relationships and prevent conflict.

When it comes to the use of such policies in response to the Murray incident, however, students and administrators have articulated differing understandings of restorative justice and whether or not it could be applied retroactively.

In a conversation with The Campus, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of the College Katy Smith Abbott focused largely on restorative practices, which she characterized as a holistic “culture shift” that would not necessarily impact the basic structure of the judicial process. Though Smith Abbott stressed that she, like others in the community, is still gaining a fuller understanding of restorative practices, she expressed a reluctance to apply them immediately to the Murray protests.

“We’re in a really tough moment now where many of us can say, ‘Oh, if we’d already had restorative practices on this campus we would’ve had different kinds of conversations, post-March 2, that could’ve potentially influenced the judicial process,’” Smith Abbott said. “We are not comfortable saying we’re going to implement [restorative practices] in a rush.” She cited the advice of experts in restorative practices, with whom administrators have consulted, as the reasoning for taking a slower approach to implementation.

Rather than changing existing judicial procedures, Smith Abbott expects these practices to provide additional avenues for dealing with conflict. “It’s expanding the menu considerably, so that we have different resources and competencies to be able to ensure that we care for individuals and communities,” she said.

Even if restorative practices were applied retroactively to Murray protesters, she noted, “It’s not to say that there would be no judicial sanction for a policy violation, but [only] that the conversation would be informed by this work.”

In recent weeks, however, student advocates have advanced their own interpretation. A flier distributed throughout campus, titled “No Discipline Without Justice,” demands that the College “immediately halt its official disciplinary process and reconsider all discipline leveled against Mar. 2 protesters.” The flier also calls for the implementation of restorative practices, which, it asserts, “can radically and progressively change the College’s culture.” Additionally, in solidarity with students facing discipline, organizers at the Chellis House distributed armbands and pins reading “RJ,” for restorative justice.

Travis Sanderson ’19, who has been involved in the student advocacy, discussed its importance in an email to the Campus. “Without restorative practices, there is no long-term institutional change that will last and address sufficiently the pain and harm currently felt among segments of our community,” he said.

“Fortunately, we are moving forward as a College with restorative practices,” he continued. “Just not quickly enough.”

The administration’s consideration of these topics may have its origins in a December 2015 town hall discussion with President of Middlebury Laurie L. Patton. At that time, Patton raised the possibility of implementing restorative justice in the context of bias and cultural appropriation, noting that restorative justice “focuses less on the idea of legal violation and more on the ideas of community and repair.”

In the spring of 2016, a four-step plan was created for implementing these practices at Middlebury. According to that plan, restorative practices “seek to build relationships and a sense of community in order to prevent future wrongdoings or conflict.” In addition, they aim to “reduce, prevent, and improve harmful behavior, repair harm and restore relationships and resolve conflict and hold groups and individuals accountable.”

Ultimately, however, due to financial restrictions, the College was unable to move forward with the plan. Its $30,000 price tag was impractical as concerns surfaced College’s financial difficulties, and the timing of the proposal would have required that it receive discretionary funding rather than simply being included in the annual budget.

Thus, the College has yet to implement the proposed plan, which would take about a year to complete. “We would need to have at least fifty trained facilitators on campus to address any conflict or concern using restorative justice practices,” Dean of Students Baishakhi Taylor said in an email. “It would take about twelve to sixteen months to get this many colleagues trained and create appropriate scaffolding of support around the practice before implementing it.”

Student advocates have cited Patton’s 2015 words as evidence for the benefits of restorative practices. In response, while Smith Abbott acknowledged the “understandable desire to say that this thing that the president first named as restorative justice could be implemented right now,” she concluded, “I don’t see the things as antagonistic — restorative practices and an approach to college policy violations being adjudicated by a community board.”

Still, Smith Abbott left open the possibility that the implementation of restorative practices could change the course of future disciplinary processes. “In terms of how restorative practices would impact the outcome of policy violations, I think that’s very real,” she said. “I think that’s where the Judicial Affairs Officers and the Dean of Students, in conversation with me and probably several others, would determine how we balance a desire to uphold college policies … with the primary goal of any disciplinary process, which is individual growth, education, community and the repair of any fissure that has occurred.”